News Center

Author Q&A: Tyrone Jaeger on his debut novel, ‘Radio Eldorado’

CONWAY, Ark. (April 17, 2020) —Dr. Tyrone Jaeger, associate professor of English at Hendrix College, will soon celebrate the release of his debut novel, Radio Eldorado, now available for pre-order from Braddock Avenue Books.

Jaeger arrived in Arkansas in 2008 to serve as Hendrix-Murphy Writer-in-Residence. Following that residency, he stayed on in the English Department to teach creative writing and literature. He is the author of the 2016 story collection So Many True Believers and the 2012 cross-genre novella The Runaway Note. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Southern Humanities Review, High Desert Journal, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in the Catskill Mountains, Jaeger lives on Beaverfork Lake with his wife and daughter. His short fiction has earned numerous accolades, including the 2018 Porter Fund Literary Prize. Radio Eldorado was recently recognized by the Arkansas Arts Council with a $4,000 Individual Artist Grant in Novel Writing.

He spoke recently with Amy Forbus ’96 of the Hendrix Office of Marketing Communications. An edited version of their conversation appears below.

Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! How did the process unfold, from concept to publication?

The book sprung from a novel that was my dissertation at the University of Nebraska. That novel was a bit of a mess, so when we first arrived at Hendrix, I wanted a project I could finish in two years, which was the time on my original contract. Within that messy novel was a chapter set in 1969, and it functioned as the origin story of one of the characters (Darla) in my collection So Many True Believers. I thought that expanding that chapter into a novel would be an easy process, but it took six years to finish. That was 2014. During that time, I also wrote The Runaway Note and some of the stories in So Many True Believers, which was published in 2016. 

Of course, when I “finished” Radio Eldorado in 2014, it wasn’t really finished. I worked on the book with my agent, Hendrix alum, Tim Wojcik [’11], and the process of finding a good home for a book can move at a glacial pace. I’m really pleased that the book is with Braddock Avenue Books. Braddock also re-published So Many True Believers after its original publisher closed.   

In addition to your Hendrix alumnus agent, there’s another Hendrix connection with the book’s cover design, isn’t there?

Oh, yes. The cover was designed by Emily Mente, a Hendrix alum. She graduated in ’14. Emily was in Fiction Writing with me a few years ago. We’re friends on social media, and I admired these amazing murals that she was painting in Austin, some of which had a kind of ’60s psychedelic concert poster feel. A number of them had the aesthetic I wanted for the cover of Radio Eldorado. I reached out to Emily, and we collaborated on a cover. I’m excited to soon have the painting hanging somewhere in my home. 

The setting of Colorado in 1969 is a captivating one — the scenery and cultural references provide a vivid backdrop. What led you to that time and place?

I lived in Colorado for about ten years. As I began thinking about Colorado in 1969 and doing a little research, I found out about the Mother’s Day Fire. This was at the Rocky Flats weapons assembly plant, where they made plutonium triggers for hydrogen bombs. It was a disaster and a big cover-up followed. Had the fire not been contained, Denver would have experienced something like Chernobyl. The Carnegie Library for Local History at the Boulder Public Library has this extensive oral history collection from workers, politicians, activists, you name it, who were connected to Rocky Flats. That set up a lot of the research that I did. As well, the Denver Pop Festival occurred that summer, so I leaned onto that history.  

I’ve been reluctant to refer to the book as an historical novel, but it did involve a lot of research. I went deep down the rabbit hole of the Weather Underground and the story of Diana Oughton, the onetime girlfriend of Bill Ayers, who died in a Greenwich Village townhouse where they were making explosives. Diana was the initial inspiration for Cynthia, the debutante turned dissident in Radio Eldorado

Do you have a character in Radio Eldorado that you would call your favorite? Or any elements or aspects of characters that you particularly enjoy?

I love them all in different ways. When I began work on the book, I thought Cynthia was likely to be the only point of view character, but my interest in the other characters quickly took hold. I enjoyed writing Alvin Wund a lot. His limited worldview doesn’t align with my own, but his shortcomings and failures are so tangible that it’s hard not to love him. 

I also often find myself developing affection for secondary characters that surprise me. Pearl Hart is the perfect example in this novel. She’s so lost but so sure of herself. She’s my underdog favorite in Radio. And also Esther, who only appears as a ghost. She was fun to write because she never really takes the stage. We just see the other characters, Vivi and Alvin in particular, responding to her — or projecting her — out of their grief and guilt. 

​I think one could make a case for Esther being the central character. It’s her absence which drives most everything in the Wund household. 

While this is your first novel, you’ve been an award-winning author for a while now. What have you seen as the advantages to writing both long-form and short-form?

The hard thing about writing novels is the amount of time they take. Depending on how you count, I’ve written three or four novels, and only one of them will be published. I’ve been working on this longish fiction project—another novel—for maybe four years, on and off. Speaking strictly for myself, the starts and stops caused by teaching and parenting would suggest that I should focus more on short-form. 

But your question is about the advantages. I think a short story has to be sharper and cut right to the core of the subject matter. The novel allows one to linger, to explore, to get lost. Denis Johnson said something to the effect that he loved writing novels because it was like swimming out into the ocean until you don’t know where the shore is anymore, but still, you need to find your way back.  

How does what and how you teach interact with how you develop as a writer?

I try not to simply teach my favorites or the writers who have influenced me, but I inevitably include some. I’m a big believer in the importance of place, so I find myself encouraging that kind of exploration, that kind of foundation work, in my fiction and nonfiction classes. I think, too, that I applaud students when they write broken and damaged characters, those that you have to work a bit to find what might make them lovable.  

Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to mention?

I was recently awarded the Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Professorship with [Hendrix Professor of Art] Maxine Payne to work on a project called “Audiovisual Arkansas: Citizen Storytellers.” We’ll be making multimedia stories about Arkansans with a focus on work, play, and place. 

I’ve also been working on a story, a novel, set in Arkansas. It’s about a failed UFO cult, a disgraced astronaut and his brood, who run a campground and RV park. It has similarities to Radio Eldorado in that it’s a group of people who design their own community, develop their own rules, regardless of how foolish or misguided. It’s the challenge we all face now as we practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. We get to make a new world should we choose to.